Retraumatization is when a client re-experiences or relives their traumatic experience. As we are helping clients heal from trauma, we may find ourselves walking the very thin tightrope between “then” and “now” with a client.
Because of the nature of trauma and the intensity of somatic and cognitive memories associated with the experience of trauma, it is very easy for a client to slip into the “then”. You may have heard of the statement, “what fires together, wires together” as it relates to brain development. Some neural networks are pretty predictable, and others can be very unassuming. A client could easily activate a memory that propels them into the experience of their trauma. Below, we will talk about ways to move a client away from a retraumatization state.
In trauma treatment, pacing is your friend. You will hear us here at TTC always say, “slower is faster in trauma treatment.” We have a podcast on this topic that you can check out here https://www.buzzsprout.com/1986549/10833126 , But in regards to using pacing to help a client move more towards “now” in their trauma treatment, more than likely, you will need to slow the process down. Help them to resource more frequently throughout the session. Don’t be afraid to interrupt a process and engage the client in their stabilization/coping skills. My favorite phrase in my sessions is, “Can I gently interrupt?”
Helping clients settle can also move them back towards the “now”. It is vital to start a client’s healing process off by developing or strengthening their moment-to-moment stabilization skills. These skills could be life-savers down the road. I also encourage you to continually practice these skills throughout the treatment process. Have a mixture of internal and external. Internal will be things they can do with themselves, and external will involve other people or things. Even though you are in session, you can help clients imagine the resource or tap into the felt sense of the resource, which is as powerful as being in contact with the resource in reality.
Establishing and Re-establishing Safety
It might also be helpful to assess the sense of safety the client is experiencing in treatment with you as well as in their life outside of treatment. Safety can be a powerful, stabilizing force in trauma treatment. When checking with clients regarding safety in the treatment process, you can say things like, “I am here with you,” “you are not alone,” etc. Once those things are said, you can check-in to see if the client can connect and embody your support. If they are struggling to take in that support, you can be curious about their connection to safety. You can also ask them about their life outside of treatment and see if something is causing a lack of safety. Lastly, you can ask if safety needs to be brought into the piece of trauma your client is working on. Bringing in the component protector; distancing from, freezing, and or shrinking the threat; etc. can help to give the system a sense of safety to move through the processing.
Working with trauma can be rewarding. It is also hard work. Holding space for a client to navigate through some of the hardest moments in their life takes skill, patience, trust in self, and trust in the process. Pacing, stabilization, and establishing and re-establishing safety are all skills you can use to help move clients away from retraumatization.